National University could make college affordable

Thanks to advances in information technology, we can “create a 21st Century National University that will help millions of students get a high-quality, low-cost college education — without hiring any professors, building any buildings or costing the taxpayers a dime.” So writes Kevin Carey, who directs education policy at New America, in his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

national university was George Washington’s wish, Carey writes on CNN. He even left money for it in his will. Now it’s doable.

Anyone with an Internet connection can log on to Coursera, edX,, and many other websites offering high-quality online courses, created by many of the world’s greatest universities and taught by tenured professors, for free.

Tens of millions of students have already signed up for these courses over the last four years. Yet enrollment in traditional colleges hasn’t flagged, and prices have continued to rise. The reason is clear. The free college providers can’t (or won’t) give online students the one thing they need more than anything else: a college degree. Elite universities like Harvard and Stanford don’t want to dilute their exclusive brands. Nonelite universities don’t want to give away something they’re currently selling for a lot of money.

The U.S. Department of Education could create a nonprofit with the authority to approve courses and grant degrees, he proposes. “Any higher education provider, public or private sector, could submit a course for approval,” paying a fee to cover the cost of evaluation.

While many of the courses will be free, students will bear small costs for taking exams through secure online channels or in-person testing facilities. (Textbooks will be free and open-source). Students will also pay a modest fee of a few hundred dollars for the degree itself, enough to defray the operating costs of National U.

National University wouldn’t have football or fraternities, but many people would give that up for a low-cost credential.

Carey is speaking on his ideas about the future of learning this afternoon (Wednesday). Go here for the livestream.

Competency-based programs give credit for skills learned through work, independent study or other means, writes Matt Krupnick on the Hechinger Report.

That means those students can earn degrees more quickly and at a lower cost — even lower now that the U.S. Department of Education has begun a pilot program under which students at 40 institutions will be able to use federal financial aid to pay for it, which was not previously allowed.

But what about quality?

Competency-based programs “could very easily devolve into diploma mills,” said Amy Laitinen, a former White House and Department of Education advisor who is now deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and an advocate of the concept. “It could go south very quickly.”

Sweet Briar College will close due to financial problems. A residential liberal arts college for women, Sweet Briar charged $47,000 a year, including tuition and room and board. Even with financial aid, the average was $25,000 a year. Not enough young women wanted a single-sex education at that price.

A college shake-out is coming: Sweet Briar won’t be the last private college to fold.

Babel vs. essay-grading bots

These days, more tests ask students to write short essays, not just answer multiple-choice questions. But it’s slow and expensive to hire humans do the grading. Essay-grading ‘bots are cheap and fast, but are they any good?

It’s easy to fool a robot grader, Les Perelman, a former writing director at MIT, tells the Chronicle of Higher Education.

His Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator, or Babel, can crank out robot-fooling essays using one to three keywords. Each sentence is grammatically correct, structurally sound and meaningless. Robots can’t tell the difference, says Perelman.

He fed in “privacy.” Babel wrote:

“Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent. Humankind will always subjugate privateness.”

MY Access!, an online writing-instruction product, graded the essay immediately: 5.4 points out of 6, with “advanced” ratings for “focus and meaning” and “language use and style.”

Robots and human graders awarded similar scores to 22,000 essays by high school and middle school students, concluded at study by Mark D. Shermis, a former dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, in 2012.

Perelman accused Shermis of bad data analysis. The Akron professor stood by his study and published a follow-up paper this year.

Computer scientists at edX, the nonprofit online-course provider co-founded by MIT, are working on the Enhanced AI Scoring Engine, or EASE. The software can learn and imitate the grading styles of particular professors,” reports the Chronicle.

Some of edX’s university partners have used EASE to provide feedback to students in massive open online courses (MOOCs).

MOOCs: A head start on college — but kids need help

High school students could use MOOCS (massive open online courses) to earn college credits, Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller tells Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger Digital.

“There are so many studies that demonstrate the benefit to students in high school in having access to college-level material. It encourages them to go to college and complete college. But that opportunity has largely been available to the most advanced students at highly endowed school districts that have teachers that can teach college-level subjects. It’s been a very inequitable offering.”

With the help of a MOOC, a high school teacher who is “passionate and motivated, but not necessarily expert” can teach a college course, Knoller says.

Ohio is looking at MOOCs to prepare students for college and prevent the need for remediation.

The San Jose State Plus pilot, a partnership with Udacity, offers three remedial and entry-level math courses to high school, community college or university students. The for-credit courses cost only $150.

At the Oakland Military Institute, a charter school with predominantly low-income students, some students didn’t have the computers or Internet access at home needed for the college statistics course, reports the San Jose Mercury News. And “many needed personal attention to make it through.”

To make it work, the institute had to issue laptops to students, set aside class time for them to focus on the online course, and assign teachers to make sure they stayed on task.

. . . With more than 700 students in grades 6 through 12, the school had to devote much of its computer lab space, equipment and staffing to online courses for the roughly 45 students taking the Udacity courses. A donation paid for the course fees.

Answering questions and keeping students on task consumed much of his time, said Omar Solache, a computer teacher with two other job titles. A second teacher was assigned to help ease his load.

“They’re so used to having teachers right there with them,” Solache said.

Students watched short videos, chatted with online tutors available around the clock and moved at their own pace, reviewing what they didn’t understand. An evaluation of the pilot will be available in the fall.

Here’s a research report on San Jose State’s partnership with edX on an introductory engineering MOOC.

MOOCs are popular, but not profitable

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are expanding rapidly, reports the New York Times. But where’s the money?

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — In August, four months after Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng started the online education company Coursera, its free college courses had drawn in a million users, a faster launching than either Facebook or Twitter.The co-founders, computer science professors at Stanford University, watched with amazement as enrollment passed two million last month, with 70,000 new students a week signing up for over 200 courses, including Human-Computer Interaction, Songwriting and Gamification, taught by faculty members at the company’s partners, 33 elite universities.

In less than a year, Coursera has attracted $22 million in venture capital and has created so much buzz that some universities sound a bit defensive about not leaping onto the bandwagon.

. . .  New ventures like Udemy help individual professors put their courses online. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have each provided $30 million to create edX. Another Stanford spinoff, Udacity, has attracted more than a million students to its menu of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, along with $15 million in financing.

All of this could well add up to the future of higher education — if anyone can figure out how to make money.

Coursera is trying to create “revenue streams through licensing, certification fees and recruitment data provided to employers,” reports the Times.

Selling certificates of completion requires a way to verify students are doing their own work.  Verification could use typing patterns, reports the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

eCornell is trying to enroll MOOC students in a paid follow-up class.

If students can earn transferrable credit — or perhaps employer-designed certifications — then there’s gold in them thar MOOCs.

A wonderful site called Retropundit has the news from 1913:  In 50 years, Tufts professor predicts moving pictures will make professors obsolete.

In a speech reported by the Boston Daily Globe, Tufts Professor Edwin C. Bolles hailed recent inventions which “make moving pictures talk”  and predicted:

Fifty years from today a college faculty will consist essentially of a president, a janitor and a moving-picture man.  . . .  The professors will be able to give their lectures without even entering the class room, the moving picture films will reproduce their voice and every one of their characteristic gestures and postures.

“One suspects fifty years may prove too short a span of time for such radical changes in our system of higher education,” writes Retroprundit. ” Time will tell.”

EdX will ‘blend’ with community colleges

Two Boston community colleges will partner with edX, Harvard and MIT’s online learning venture, on a “blended” computer science class. Three MIT professors will teach the online course; community college professors will provide classroom instruction and support.